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'Doubter's Almanac' Is A Family Saga, Plus Algebraic Equations


This is FRESH AIR. Ethan Canin first caught the attention of the literary world with his 1985 short story collection, "Emperor Of The Air," and because for a time after its publication he simultaneously pursued literary and medical careers. Since then he's published acclaimed novels like "For Kings And Planets" and "America America." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that three decades later Canin is still a master of the unexpected. Here's her review of Canin's latest novel, "A Doubter's Almanac."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be mathematicians - that's the cautionary message of Ethan Canin's new novel, "A Doubter's Almanac." A family saga liberally sprinkled with algebraic equations, "A Doubter's Almanac" traces the lives of two generations of mathematical geniuses whose extraordinary minds lift them high above the madding crowd but also plunge them deep into isolation, self-loathing and addiction. Throughout the over 500 pages of this elegant and devastating novel, Canin writes with authority about the likes of number theory, submanifolds and differential equations. But what he writes about with even more authority is the pressure to work, to produce, to achieve and the constant thrumming anxiety felt by his central character in particular that whatever special gifts one may have been graced with at birth could just as mysteriously disappear.

Clearly, Canin's own gifts as a writer are still vibrant and strong. "A Doubter's Almanac" is exquisitely crafted. Canin takes us readers deep into the strange world of his troubled characters without ever making us aware of the effort involved. Canin's signature characters have been boys of modest means from the sticks who have to chart their own fumbling course through the Ivy League or the world of high-stakes politics. The same premise is in place here. Milo Andret is the kind of kid whose mind is his only friend. Growing up an only child in Michigan in the 1950s, Milo roams the deep woods on his own after school, never once getting lost because of an extraordinary inner GPS system that just seems to be part of his makeup, along with an astonishing grasp of higher mathematics. After spending his 20s working as a car mechanic, Milo eventually winds up in grad school at Berkeley. Other grad students jokingly refer to him as a backwoods savant.

Because he's old for a budding mathematician, Milo keenly feels the press of time and begins drinking bourbon and doing drugs to tamp down his terror, even as he works to advance the theorem that will make his name in mathematics. Here are snippets from some of the many passages where Canin captures the queasy thrill of thinking.

(Reading) There were at least two ways to solve any problem - from the beginning, which was the usual approach, and from the end, which was not. This was how Milo began - a pad, a room, a tiny view. At night, he experimented. With his eyes closed, he built a one-dimensional world and imprisoned himself within it. Then he imprisoned himself in two dimensions and imagined a third - the fracturing of experiential knowledge. It was forceful work. It was physical work. It required him to bind his thinking. He could maintain the fiction for only minutes at a time. The effort left him hungry.

Milo's promethean struggles pay off with distinguished prizes and a professorship at Princeton. There, Canin's tale brushes close to some of the same material covered by the 2001 biographical film "A Beautiful Mind" about the Princeton mathematician and Nobel Laureate John Nash who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Milo, too, is paranoid, self-destructive and driven - and why shouldn't he be? His rivals lurk out there in the shadows - a brilliant 14-year-old, a Russian mathematical mastermind, and, the newest incarnation of potentially his greatest rival of all, the computer.

In part two of this saga, Milo's story is retold and extended by his son, Hans, who's also a gifted mathematician, although Hans's mother does everything in her power to interest him and his equally brainy sister in art history, English - anything but the discipline that's harrowed her husband. In poignant and sometimes even comic detail, Hans gives us the sense of what it was like to grow up at with a cryptic, occasionally out-and-out crazy father whose racing mind was always racing past his own family.

"A Doubter's Almanac" is an odd and completely captivating novel that, at bottom, is about a subject as old as Eve and the apple - namely, the dangerous gift of knowledge, a knowledge that illuminates the world even as it exiles its possessors from it.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "A Doubter's Almanac" by Ethan Canin. On the next FRESH AIR...


ALEX JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) Don't worry. There are plenty of hours in the day, and of course I'll have the weekend.

MAGGIE SMITH: (As Miss Shepherd) What is a weekend?

DAVIES: Dame Maggie Smith, best known in the U.S. for playing the Dowager Countess on "Downton Abbey" and Professor McGonagall in the "Harry Potter" films. She stars in new film, "The Lady In The Van." We'll be speaking with her. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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